What Are The Methods Of Theology?

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What are the methods of theology, theological methods? Information about the approaches used in theology.

Theology

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The diversity of the sources and formative factors that go into the making of theology indicates that there will be a corresponding diversity of methods. In particular, there has been in the history of theology a tension between faith and reason. Some theologians have placed almost the entire emphasis upon the content of faith, the revelation transmitted through scripture and tradition. For these theologians the role of reason has been an ancillary one. Others, while by no means denying the importance of revelation, have nevertheless believed it incumbent upon them to provide some rational framework within which to exhibit and elucidate the revelation. Theologians of this second group have distinguished between “natural” and “revealed” theology.

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Rationalistic Approach.

Natural theology consists of those basic truths concerning the existence of God and the destiny of man that are supposed to be discoverable by reason alone. Thus they are held to. be accessible to all thinking men. This rational, or natural, theology provided a basis on which was erected the traditional superstructure of revealed theology. By this means the somewhat abstract truths attained by reason might be filled out and expanded in the light of the revelation which was the foundation of the religious community.

For a long time natural theology was regarded as the indispensable prelude to revealed theology, but, although it still has its advocates, its validity has become increasingly suspect. The most important part of natural theology consisted of its proofs of the existence of God. Those proofs were of two kinds. One, the ontological, was purely rational and made no appeal to experience. It claimed that all men already have the idea of God and that this idea implies the existence of a corresponding reality. The classic statement of the argument was given by St. Anselm: we have the idea of a Being than which no greater can be conceived. But if this Being did not exist, we would conceive a greater, namely, a Being who added the perfection of existence to the other perfections. Therefore, this Being exists.

Many people, even in Anselm’s time, questioned whether the transition from idea to reality can be made in this manner. It is widely believed that Kant finally put his finger on the fallacy of the argument by pointing out that existence is not another predicate, nor another perfection, though Anselm treats it as if it were. Though some people still dispute over refinements of the argument, it is nowadays generally held to be discredited or, at least, highly questionable.

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St. Thomas Aquinas did not accept Anselm’s argument, but he brought forward his own famous “five ways” of establishing the existence of God. These arguments differed from the ontological one because they did not proceed from ideas alone but appealed to our experience of the world. In general terms, a consideration of the finite beings within the world is said to lead us to conclude the existence of an infinite Being on whom the world depends. In brief summary, the five ways lead from the observed fact of motion to a Prime Mover, from causality to a First Cause, from contingent beings to Necessary Being, from the gradations of perfection among beings to a Perfect Being, and from evidences of order and design to a Supreme Intelligence.

It would be impossibe here to indicate all the refinements and criticisms to which these arguments have been subjected. Even today they are debated. But they have ceased to carry much conviction. They may not have been entirely demolished, but at the best they would establish something so nebulous as not to have any importance for theology. The verdict of the philosopher David Hume still seems to stand: “The whole of natural theology—that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence—has little importance for human life.”

Revelational Approach.

The breakdown of traditional natural theology has been welcomed by the representatives of a different approach to theological problems. This alternative way into theology received classic expression at the ,time of the Reformation and has been reaffirmed in the 20th century by Karl Barth and many others. In their view, natural theology can only be misleading, and no idea of God framed by human reason can be anything but distorting. Thus, natural theology is not a gateway to revealed theology but cuts us off from a proper understanding of the revelation. The business of theology is not to provide a framework for the revelation, but rather to let the revelation create its own framework and shape the theologian’s thinking. The method of theology is thus understood to be exegesis, and an exegesis that is determined by the text. This method results in a strongly Biblical type of theology.

However, if this theology escapes the problems that have befallen the exponents of natural theology, it has severe problems of its own. Natural theology, by appealing to all rational beings, tried to relate the theological endeavor to the everyday understanding of men and to common reason. A theology that omits this step tends to become an isolated pursuit, unrelated to the general intellectual life of mankind. Deprived of the substructure provided by natural theology, revelation hangs in the air, so to speak, unconnected with anything else in human life. Especially in a secular age, it may seem to be taking too much for granted just to assume the reality of God and revelation and to visualize the task of theology as the exegesis of this revelation. If natural theology of the traditional sort has failed, can it simply be abandoned, or must the theologian look for a new kind of approach that will help to bridge the gap between revelation and the secular understanding?

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Humanistic Approach.

A third approach, which might offer the prospect of passing beyond the shortcomings of the two already considered, is indicated by the 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich in his method of correlation. This begins neither with an attempt to prove a revelation nor with one simply given, but with an analysis of the human situation. It begins not with demonstration but with description. The reality that it seeks to describe is our everyday existence, open to investigation by everyone. Thus the relation between theology and secular understanding, formerly provided by traditional natural theology and then broken by revelational theology, is restored, but in a more tenable form. Furthermore, in making the human situation the methodological starting point for theology, this approach offers a reminder that theology is not concerned with abstract speculations concerning God and the other worldly. It is concerned with God precisely in correlation with the human situation.

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Theology is just as much a doctrine of man as a doctrine of God. As a descriptive approach, this third theological method has found a powerful tool in phenomenology. This philosophical method has already been widely used by philosophers for the analysis of human existence, and these results have been taken over and applied by theologians. They claim that phenomenological description of the human existence known to all shows situations in which words like “faith,” “revelation,” “grace,” and even “God” have their meaning. They also claim that the theological exposition of the content of revelation is to be related to these situations and the questions that they raise.

Tillich himself gave most attention to situations such as guilt, death, and anxiety. These did not, so he claimed, yield a positive understanding of God, but prepared man for revelation. Other writers, especially Catholic theologians such as Joseph Marechal, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan, employ an “anthropological” approach broadly similar to Tillich’s. However, they redress the balance by placing greater stress on the affirmative elements in the human situation, such as hope, love, freedom. They see man in the process of self-transcendence. God is the “whither” of this transcendence, according to Rahner, rather than the reply to the anxiety occasioned by the awareness of finitude. The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel teaches a doctrine of man with affinities to the views described here.

Methods and Their Historical Development.

The three theological methods here noted and the three types of theology that they tend to produce are neither exhaustive nor clearly defined. They arise because one element rather than another has been stressed in the complex texture of theology, but there are many intermediate cases. Some theologians whom we might assign to a particular type could be shown to possess characteristics that might argue for their being assigned to a different type. But as a rough guide, the threefold classification has some usefulness. The three types, with their corresponding methods, have persisted through the history of theology.

The first, or rationalistic, type goes back to the very beginnings of theology. Theology, as its name betrays, began among the Greeks. Pre-Socratic philosophy was a kind of natural theology and already introduced terms that were to be of great importance later, such as logos and nomos. When Greek thought encountered the Biblical tradition, the rationalistic style of theology entered both the Jewish schools of thought, in the work of Philo of Alexandria, and the Christian, in that of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and most of the patristic writers. This style of theology culminated in the Middle Ages with the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. It has persisted ever since not only in the innumerable disciples of St. Thomas but in all those forms of theology that have reckoned seriously with metaphysics and science and have tried to come to terms with the achievements of secular thought.

The second type, which may be called revelational, reflects the prophetic spirit of the Bible itself and had its earliest representatives in those theologians who protested against the encroachments of Greek philosophy. It came to maturity in the work of the great reformers Luther and Calvin. Its continuing vitality is attested by the fact that to this tradition belongs the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth.

The third, or humanistic, type has some affinities with the first, but makes its appeal to the whole spectrum of human existence or human experience, stressing the nonrational elements alongside reason. Perhaps St. Augustine could be seen as an early representative, though he might better be regarded as a bridge between the first and third types. Friedrich Schleiermacher at the beginning of the 19th centurv ushered in a period of dominance of humanistic theology. Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack continued the line, and it remains to the present.

The three methods and the three types, though often rivals of one another, have all made important contributions. It is unlikely that in the future any one theological method will establish a monopoly. Nor does it seem likely that the various methods could be synthesized without loss of integrity. A measure of pluralism and controversy makes for a vigorous and healthy state in theology. As already noted, there is always a historically conditioned element in any theological formulation, and it may well be that in changing historical circumstances, now one and now another of the historic types is most appropriate for bringing the meaning of the revelation to bear on the contemporary situation. For instance, it is commonly agreed that the prophetic stance of Karl Barth was the right theological response at the time of the dominance of the German Nazis and the only one that met the challenge of that time. But as circumstances changed, a new style of theology was required to correct the overemphases of the other.

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Modern Trends.

Unfortunately, the history of theology has too often seemed like the swing of a pendulum. Each newly discovered insight leads to the forgetting of another of equal validity, which must then be rediscovered later. No doubt it is impossible for all points of view to be grasped simultaneously. That would be an attempt to reach a kind of timeless truth and would neglect the concreteness of the particular situation in which one approach has an appropriateness superior to others. But the complaint can justly be made that theologies do have a tendency
to become too one-sided, and this has been the cause of the many violent controversies that have occurred in the history of theology.

When a theological interpretation is pushed to an extreme of one-sidedness, it becomes known as a heresy. In such a case, a segment of teaching has been taken out of its context and is presented in isolation. Frequently, it is the fact that a particular truth has been neglected in the official theology of the community that leads the so-called heretic to present it in exaggerated form. To this extent his heresy may be justified. It has been argued by some that Marxism is a Judeo-Christian heresy, called into being by the failure of the theologians of that tradition to perceive the social implications of their theology.

However, there is a tendency in the late 20th century to drop the term “heresy” from use altogether. If there is no theological formulation that is final and holds for all situations, there is probably none that is entirely devoid of truth either. Certainly, a view that deviates from the commonly accepted norm cannot be dismissed by attaching to it the pejorative label of “heresy.” It can be overcome only by showing that the accepted view has better theological credentials. The criterion of truth is not the decree of an arbitrary ecclesiastical authority but the tests of theological method. Whatever may have been the case in the past, theologians today for the most part pursue their inquiries in freedom, governed only by the integrity of their own discipline.

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